A sermon which explores questions about God and the nature of time and space. Learn more about the nature of objective time on the sermon Riding a beam of light

What is a Window in the Walls of Time?

Bell, Erasmus, Manins Discuss Time

Zine #19 Stand firm!

Stand firm! and grow old along with me

Oliver Sacks on Time Perception

The Time Travellers

Let me begin by quoting the final few lines from R S Thomas’ poem, “Waiting”.

The Book rusts
in the empty pulpits above empty
pews, but the Word ticks inside
remorselessly as the bomb that is timed soon to go off.

I have always wanted to know the truth: the truth about life, the truth about existence, the truth about God, the truth about science, the truth about faith. Sometimes I have been less willing to discover the truth about myself.

What is intensely personal to me has in many ways now become a very public search for truth. It is a risky business. The one person in a congregation who can be highly vulnerable in the search for truth is, of course, the minister or priest or rabbi. At a superficial level we all risk being misunderstood, but at a deep emotional level it is very difficult in the public arena to say, “this is what I believe and here are the reasons.” Yet over time I have become committed to doing it, strengthened my commitment to it, and am unwilling to let it go, especially when I believe the truth to be at stake. I am a person who is for truth, who is in search of truth, both personal truths of faith and public truths of faith.

New Zealand society, by and large, is rather narrow and petty-minded when it comes to the public truths of faith. In humiliation I must declare that is also the case with the Church. It has lost the plot. However, those who remain true to Christ come closer to having the truth rub off on them. This is exactly what I want to talk about: how truth is determined, and what part God has to play in it.

In order to do it, we are going to have to build a time machine. We are literally going to be time travellers: each and every one of us. We are going to build a time machine today and demonstrate to each other how it works and what it is for. For if we could move freely back and forth in time, perhaps we might come closer to an understanding of truth.

To build a time machine is going to require no small amount of effort. So I need to begin by asking two absolutely basic questions. These are questions not often asked in Church. Then I am going to ask two more questions alongside of them. It is only when we put all four together something astonishing begins to emerge, astonishing theology, like new corn springing up from old seed, engineered by all sorts of processes. Here, then, are the four questions: What is God; Who is God; What is Truth; What is Time?

What is God?

This is a huge question, but one that rarely gets asked in a Church. Like a radio telescope or satellite dish waiting to collect signals, we listen for the data of God. And when we hear or think we hear, then others may hear it differently. There is an illuminating story of a Jewish man of deep faith in God who was being interviewed for the position of Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. This is one of the most prestigious appointments possible in the Jewish world. We have little idea what it meant to the Jews who fled Nazism to find a home in Britain and beyond. Jacob Bronowski wrote movingly of it. The Chief Rabbi speaks a word to Jews Christians, Muslims, and secular people that always commands the greatest respect. This Rabbi had to face one person on the interviewing panel who was extremely conservative, in fact, it would seem, utterly fundamentalist. He opened his Bible to 1 Samuel 15 and read Samuel’s words to King Saul: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts ... Attack Amalek, kill men and women, infants and children, oxen and sheep, sparing no one.” It is to be sure an evil verse. The Rabbi was asked, “That’s in the Bible. Do you believe God said it to Samuel?” The answer was swift and sure, “I believe that Samuel heard it, but I don’t believe God said it.” As Harold Kushner (Living a Life that Matters), who tells the story says, “The authentic voice of God would demand that we be more compassionate and less cruel, that we would show more reverence for innocent lives. God always asks more of us, not less.” That man did not become Chief Rabbi. But he could speak with a clear conscience. I have experienced something similar. He may not have known what God is, but he surely knew what God is not. You actually do not need to be a time traveller to know what God is not. However, I suggest that we do need to journey in time to begin to see what God is. And that brings me to my second question.

Who is God?

Now conservative Christians are likely to rush in and say that Jesus is God. They may be right and they may not. I certainly incline to the latter view, but equally I want to be as true as possible to the broad testimony of Scripture and say that God was in Christ. Who is God? is a very significant question because it tries to probe whether God is personal. God in nature may be spectacular, but a force or a power is simply a force or a power. I remember one of my colleagues, a Superintendent when I was a beginning minister, saying any number of times, “Well, God isn’t a person but God is personal”. I think he meant God was a kind of personable force. A sort of benign electrical field. Quite different in kind from the Biblical affirmation that God was in Christ.

My colleague in ministry had let go of most theological dogma. Except one thing. He maintained an unwavering, ultra-dogmatic, literal belief in the resurrection. Sometimes I wondered why. It seemed curious to me. It was well meant but ultimately confused theology. In the end I decided I would rather try to communicate with a forceful person sort of God than a personable force sort of God.

The alternative was to say prayers to a force, which ultimately meant I might as well say prayers to gravity or even the sun. Gravity had certain benefits, in so far as gravity never answered back and it was always there. Yet the sticking point was always the resurrection. Why the personal but impersonal force would indulge in such a cheap trick as resurrection totally eluded me. So, who is God? This is the consummate question for all kinds of reasons. Whatever way we look at it, the Bible ticks away remorselessly, encouraging us into dialogue, eliciting a response, inviting us to do something we have never really done before, which is to find God by finding ourselves.

As I see it, Jesus was not God. No way. Yet, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. This Biblical affirmation contains too profound a truth to be dismissed as a vaguely benign life force. Who is God? When we attempt to answer this we are forced to come to certain truths about life and existence, our own life, our own existence. It is imperative we continue to ask the question. Truths will begin to emerge as a result.

Certain truths. That is the centre about which my life wants to revolve. Hard core truths, softer truths, and truths I only see as if in mist, feeling their effect. It is all too easy to make claims about truth that afterwards cause embarrassment.

What is truth?

That was Pontius Pilate’s question. It echoes down the ages. There are a host of philosophers, scientists and others who have been engaged in the search for truth. The appeal to truth transcends culture, language, race, nation, individuals. We all know there are truths we can know and truths yet to be discovered. But at the very time in the West that the most wonderful convergence of truths in science has occurred, wisdom has deserted us and we live in an age of increasing distrust. The nature of truth has always to be examined, but a clue to truth’s effects comes from the past, from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Truth, said Kierkegaard, has to be lived. An abstract idea is not a truth, but when we live out a truth in personal life, when we take it into our very being, then that truth will stand. It will stand as a beacon in a dark, stormy night.

I acknowledge this only touches on the question what is truth? Nothing I could say in a month of Sundays could begin to pick up the many diverse ideas and concepts around which the arguments over truth have raged. By and large such ideas are not commonly heard in the New Zealand Church scene. Somehow, most denominations are drifting from their theological and philosophical roots, developed first by St Paul and then progressively throughout the history of Christianity. It is not only questions of truth that have fallen from public debate but also an even more fundamental issue of human existence, the nature of time.

What is time?

If we could begin to answer this question, I am convinced that new answers to the question of truth might begin to emerge, and once the nature of time and truth are being explored, then the vast reality of what is God and who is God begins to break through. So to answer what is God, who is God, what is truth, and what is time? we are going to start the time machine. I said we were going to build it, which may have mis-stated the case.

First of all, you are entitled to know where the time machine is. It is in the pews already. It is you yourself. You are literally a living clock. As surely as the Bible ticks, what ticks in you is a measurement of time that is truly extraordinary. Secondly, you have, as an active Christian, an ability to re-enter the past in a way denied even to the best secular historians. When we tell the stories of faith, we do not simply tell them as stories but rather we enter those worlds as if we were present in them and they are present within us. As we recount them, the ancient faith is constellated in the psyche.

The stories equally propel us into the future. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the same God of Jesus. And is the same God of us. The God of Israel acts in history, creating a vast interplay that has no limitations of time. All the distinctions of past, present and future meld and vanish.

We suddenly find that we are caught in a now that seems everywhere present and nowhere present. The ineffable mystery, the immensity of life, shimmers illuminated by the light of time. I cannot emphasize enough that the concept of time and insights into the limitations of time is perhaps the greatest hidden legacy of the Jewish-Christian heritage. Upon it, and it alone, could modern science begin. But today, all our assumptions about time are in turmoil. For almost one hundred years, Albert Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity, have, like the Bible, ticked inexorably like a bomb waiting to explode in a world that does not want to know.

The simple truth is that the “now” in which we live is almost entirely a personal now. There is no universal now running throughout the universe. “This defies commonsense,” you might say. “It is nonsense! Why when the second plane crashed into the Twin Towers, I saw it happening. It was real, it was now!” Not so. You could not see it happening any faster than the length of time it took for that image to be transmitted at the speed of light around the world. That now when the terror took place was not your now. When you look up at the sky at night you are not looking at something happening now. The light left Mars several minutes ago, the light from Alpha Centauri, the brightest pointer to the Southern Cross, left 4.5 years ago, the light from the Clouds of Magellan left 600,000 years ago, the light from the M33 Andromeda Nebula 2,000,000 years ago. Your eyes take you on a journey of time travel that is utterly, utterly extraordinary. You are looking at the way things were millions of years ago, and simultaneously you are experiencing the present, and you are experiencing through your eyes every instant of time that has passed in between.

Just to complicate matters, as if this was not hard enough to grasp anyway, the relative speed with which you are moving makes time even more flexible. Imagine you are on a space ship flying away from earth at a speed close to c, the speed of light. The closer you get to the impenetrable mystery of c, then your own personal clock, which is you yourself, slows down relative to those of us left back here on earth. The faster you go the slower you seem to age. It has been demonstrated in particle physics.

So, these are not flights of fancy, they are experimental observations of modern science. We may not like them. Yet they will not go away. It is simply intellectual laziness to banish them from Church as irrelevant to the faith. To so do is to deny the faith itself. Time and Christian faith are inextricably interwoven. Time, Father Time, is as mystical a father as the Father of Christ, Abba! Yet, we are stubborn in our beliefs about time, the division of past, present and future. If we could only for an instant grasp what Einstein says, then we begin to see how God experiences all time. Bible history, human history, the history of the evolving universe, the evolving planet, are experienced by God in simultaneous time. The seeds which the planter sowed and the fruits of the harvest are one and the same simultaneous event. Conception, birth, life, death are understood not as separate events, but simultaneously the end is the beginning, the beginning is the end. The effect of creating the universe with time is to create human purpose within this framework.

What truly matters, what makes your life count, what makes it tick as inexorably as the Bible like a bomb waiting to explode, is to sense the majesty of God in all things, and especially in Jesus Christ. He is truth and he is timing.

I do not know what God is and I do not know who God is, but I do know that God in Christ is the intersection of the great stories of faith with truth and time and me myself, the personal. I could spend a fruitful time with you outlining some of the implications of the famous equation of Special Relativity. But suffice it to say that what really counts is not an equation. It is the life well lived, tempered by truth and faith. It is by appropriating the stories of faith to each of us as members of a living faith community that the centre of the intersection flames into life. At this intersection, is the universe in microcosm: this is Christ. We fall into the centre, and we dwell in truth.

There are many things beside the Bible that tick away as if awaiting instructions to explode into our awareness. But the explosion of consciousness that comes by time travelling in the stories of faith gives a sharp, sharp definition to life. You are time travellers. You are people who, having lived through whatever number of decades, three, four, five, or even nine, still have to learn the basic fact God creates the creation with time. It is eternal, it is instantaneous. A paradox indeed. A paradox of exquisite beauty, however. We live in the most amazing universe. Give thanks, and let it be with humility of heart and a mind open to wonder.


Trailer for Grow old along with me

Radical amazement


Excursus: After the Sermon

The Lorentz Transformations, or, E=mc2, is Not Nearly Enough

It is more than one hundred years since Einstein developed his theory of Special Relativity. It gave rise to the equation which has dominated popular imagination ever since, E=mc². E is the energy, m is the mass of an object, and c is the speed of light.

It is, however, not strictly the mathematics of the situation. The mass of an object can and does vary. Let me deal with that quickly, but if mathematics scares you just skip to the next paragraph. The question of how the original mass of an object changes, m to M , depending on its velocity relative to c, is described by the results of applying the fearsome-looking Lorentz transformations.

These transformations have been described by Nobel physicist Richard Feynman in Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry and Space-time. It is true, they are not so easy! but they do, as Feynmen points out, give a physical consistency particularly with regard to the way we measure time.

I would add, that, in the deepest psychological sense, time is essentially our most flexible and inflexible commodity. We have had an almost infinite supply of time available to us in the past. When we were young we were almost immortal! but we are now radically disconnected from our personal past. We observe the stars in time past but cannot observe ourselves. Others, in some distant place in the universe, will see us as we were, but we have only memory to rely on. It is a devilish conundrum. Only the Jewish/Christian God could have dreamt it up. We may rail against it, but it is how space-time is made. Fact. The situation, however, is worse than we imagined. For we have a personal short supply of time for the future. We are no longer young.

Yet, despite these paradoxes we are asked to live, truly live, in the Biblical sense, as if we were in eternity. This is an enigma of the first magnitude. We need help, and we are not going to get it from the Bible alone. We need Biblical analysis plus scientific analysis, plus spiritual insight from many other places as well.

The problem is, hardly anyone in Churches knows that E=mc² is not enough to begin to understand the universe. I do not mean they ought to understand Special Relativity. Rather, it is important to be aware that equations like E=mc² are not the final truths of the universe. Nor are the Lorentz transformations. They are indicators of reality, they point towards the real, but do not constitute reality.

In fact, the vast majority of Kiwis live not in an Einsteinian universe, not even in its predecessor, the Newtonian universe, but in what might best be called an ancient Greek universe, based upon the geometry of Euclid. The truth is, they do not give a moment’s thought to what the universe is or is not.

Instead, we seem to live in the dream of a universe that once was, but which has utterly failed to fire the imagination of scientists since the Middle Ages.

What evidence, other than anecdotal, is there for such an assertion? About twelve years ago, at a Royal Society gathering in Dunedin, physics Professor Jack Dodd introduced a small test of 5 multi-choice questions that the old-style fifth-form physics student might have faced in School Certificate.

Of the 50 people present 35 did not hand in their test paper, and a staggering 3 and 4 got the correct answers to the two simple problems in Newtonian physics. Dodd wrote in the Otago Daily Times, “The vast majority (even people in sciences) have never understood the lessons of Newton. Isn’t it also significant that only 15 out of 50 people were brave enough to hand in their answers.”

I doubt whether the Churches in Dunedin paid much attention to these results. Yet, I also doubt that even 15 out of 50 Churchgoers, if asked the Biblical and theological equivalents, would do any better.

Society at large knows very little of science, and society knows very little of the Bible. Most of us use the ancient maps of the universe, like Euclidean geometry, and rely on concepts of God from the same era. Not all is bad in this, and from the ancient context itself a way forward emerges.

How did it come about that the city of Athens transformed itself some 500 years before Christ to provide the intellectual foundations which have continuously shaped the West even to the present day? I suggest

  • by paying consistent attention to what it taught the young,
  • by imbuing a spirit of excellence into many facets of life,
  • by letting the human spirit soar in intellectual freedom.

Occasionally, in the defining movements of history, Churches have taken up those challenges. When it happens the conditions of a country can and do change. The transformation they then effect on people far exceeds the power of any equation.



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Stuart Manins
10 November 2017, 4:23 PM

Re: Grow old along with me. An interesting exercise, but I usually have much more time to think about the poem before I'm asked to comment on it. Having said that I enjoyed the honesty of not knowing that we were recording at that time.

1 comment